Artist-in-Residence Part II + Tips for Making the Most Out of Your Artist’s Residency or Retreat

* Continued from last week’s post about my stint as the Artist-in-Residence at The Reserve at Lake Keowee in Sunset, S.C.

As promised, here’s a bit more about my time at The Reserve, where I stayed for a week with my entire family (minus the dog). Last week I mentioned the talks I gave and the fun we had as a family–and even the actual writing of pages (the few, the proud) I was able to complete. This week I’ll finish up my recap and offer some tips from my own experiences about how to best utilize an artist’s residency like this one.


Lake Keowee, Upstate SC

Lake Keowee, Upstate SC

As mentioned, The Reserve is a private community on Lake Keowee, nestled in the foothills of the South Carolina Blue Ridge mountains. The entire Keowee River Valley was flooded in the 1960s to make the lake; the very land on which my novel, Keowee Valley, is set–especially the real-life settings of the Cherokee village of Keowee Town and the British Fort Prince George, lie beneath those blue waters. Or what’s left of them after a couple hundred-plus years, a hurried excavation, time and the sheer tonnage of water and pull of gravity.






For a moving, gorgeous and powerful first-person account of the excavation and flooding of the Keowee River Valley, see “History’s Mornings” in LOST magazine, by the award-winning author, poet and composer Philip Lee Williams.

The Valley is steeped in history, obviously. I was delighted to get to explore two 19th century graveyards on the property. Kathryn Gravely, Director of the Community Foundation, happily took me to each. She and some members of the community have painstakingly cared for these resting places, gently clearing away debris, but being sure not to disturb the graves themselves.

I love old graveyards, like most history nuts. They’ve never scared me; even as a child, wandering through spooky Lowcountry cemeteries draped in gray, ghostly Spanish moss, I always felt comfortable. There just seemed to be so many stories, so many lifetimes there.

On our last night at The Reserve I gave a history talk at Orchard House,

Giving the history talk at Orchard House

Giving the history talk at Orchard House


Dessert at the Clubhouse

a lovely and well-appointed room with hefty leather chairs and a huge stone fireplace, located in the Clubhouse. There was a nice crowd, and they asked the most interesting questions. Though I’m certainly no expert, especially when it comes to the Cherokee, I did spend nearly two years–and time since–immersed in research of the period, the people, and the languages and cultures of the place. I’m not afraid to admit when I don’t know something.

All in all, it was an amazingly peaceful and productive week–even with my entire family in tow! (And that’s saying an awful lot.) I’m incredibly thankful to the amazing Kathryn Coleman Gravely, The Community Foundation, and the wonderful people of The Reserve for their generosity. It’s impressive to see a community like this one–one that has formed its own collective identity with purpose and grace–place such a high value on the arts, and on nourishing artists. What a gift!

So, if you’re an artist or a writer like me, and you get the chance to take part in an artist’s residency, here are some tips I’ve found helpful:

1.) Get to know the people in the community where you’re residing.

Even if you’ve got to bury your head in your work, take the time to venture out and meet the people who live in the town, who run the residency, or who live and work nearby. They’re part of the makeup of the place, and their stories are priceless. They’re happy you’re there–and that happiness will carry over into your own work, lighting it from beneath.

2.) Be flexible and full of good humor.

You never know what can happen over the course of an artist’s residency. Some residencies last days, some weeks, and some even months. When I was at the Montana Artists’ Refuge for a month, the refrigerator in my apartment made a horrible rumbling noise and then groaned as if it was dying every night. At the Vermont Studio Center, where I spent another month, the house I stayed in was haunted. There were heavy footsteps outside my door for several nights in a row. No lie. And at The Reserve, we ended up having to leave a day early because of a scheduling mix-up. The point is, none of these things mattered. They were tiny blips in the grand scheme of what I hope (and pray) will be a long career as a writer. What I gleaned from each residency far out-weighed anything so insignificant as a bump in the road.

3.) Get out and explore.

No matter where you’re residing, get out and explore the natural and man-made worlds around you. It can only inform your art, make it richer, more vibrant and true. In Montana, I met another writer who I discovered was also an avid hiker. We hiked in every state and national forest within a three hour’s drive of the Refuge. In October. Sometimes in feet and feet of snow. Did I write as much as I could have? Probably not. But I’ll never forget those hikes, the talks, the snow-capped Rockies and endless big sky. Trust me: you will feed off these first-hand experiences for months and even years afterward.

4.) Know all the particulars of your residency beforehand.

When are you supposed to arrive? Depart? Is someone picking you up and dropping you off at the airport/bus station/train station? Should you get a taxi? Do taxis even come out to where you’re staying? Do you need to bring linens? Is there a washer/dryer? What about food? Do you need to buy groceries or is there a dining hall? Will you need a rental car, or can you walk just about everywhere? What are your responsibilities while you’re in residence: do you need to attend readings, give readings, mingle with townsfolk, other residents, etc? And my Numero Uno: is there a coffee maker and does it work?

5.) Suck the very marrow out of your time there.

Use every moment you have, in some way, to inform your art. Read, write, meditate, listen to music, and do it all over again until you are entirely present in the moment. Get up early. Stay up late. Take naps. You have left your world behind: a world that most likely includes work, friends, family, and a myriad of responsibilities that sometimes weigh heavily. Let them go, as much as is humanly possible. They will be there waiting for you when you return. But you will never get this uninterrupted creative time again. Use it, embrace it, luxuriate in it. Sound your barbaric yawp across whatever rooftop you can find.

6.) Be grateful.

Always be truly thankful for this precious time you’ve been given. Thank the people in charge, like the residency directors, and the people who aren’t–like the maids who clean your cabin/apartment/studio space, or the cooks at the dining hall. Write thank you notes. Write letters to the board of the foundation that paid for you to be there. Thank them for choosing you, for taking a chance on you and your art, for shining a light on artists and creativity in a world that too often seems dim.

If you haven’t been lucky enough to enjoy an artist’s residency, take heart. There are plenty out there, and one will be perfect for you. Keep writing, creating, and applying.














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